FIRE Letter to Dartmouth College President James Wright, April 19, 2005

By on April 19, 2005

April 19, 2005
President James Wright
Dartmouth College
Office of the President
207 Parkhurst Hall
Hanover, New Hampshire 03755
Sent by U.S. Mail and Facsimile (603-646-2266)
Dear President Wright:
By now, I am sure you are familiar with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and our commitment to protecting individual rights—particularly freedom of speech—on America’s college and university campuses.  I am writing to you today regarding the ongoing controversy over Dartmouth College’s commitment to free speech, as Dartmouth has been coming under increasing pressure to reaffirm that commitment.
As you know, FIRE’s website rates Dartmouth College as a “red light” institution for freedom of speech.  This rating is based primarily on your May 10, 2001, letter to the Dartmouth community regarding a controversy involving the Zeta Psi fraternity.  In that letter, you stated:
After the Trustee announcement, I met with the presidents of the CFS [Coed, Fraternity, and Sorority] organizations and told them that the administration would work with their organizations in meeting these new challenges. In return, we expected each of them to contribute to the community, to be supportive of our educational mission and our community values. Specifically, I said that I expected them to take action to address allegations of conduct that was demeaning to women and others, that was racist, or that was homophobic. As a community committed to fairness, respect, and openness, we have no patience with or tolerance for bigotry or demeaning behavior. I affirm here, with deep personal conviction, that Dartmouth is and will be an actively anti-sexist, anti-racist, and anti-homophobic institution and community.
…In a community such as ours, one that depends so much upon mutual trust and respect, it is hard to understand why some want still to insist that their “right” to do what they want trumps the rights, feelings, and considerations of others. We need to recognize that speech has consequences for which we must account.
Your remarks sweep broadly enough (especially when combined with the content of Dean James Larimore’s May 11, 2001, letter) to restrict freedom of speech in exactly the same manner as a formal speech code.  The reasons for this assessment are contained in FIRE’s February 28, 2005, letter to Dartmouth trustee T. J. Rodgers (attached).  Moreover, the inclusion of the letters in a prominent place on Dartmouth’s website gave the clear impression that the letters were, in fact, policy statements rather than merely aspirational expressions of a personal philosophy.
However, three events give FIRE cause to consider reevaluating its rating of Dartmouth.  First, you have recently made statements on the subject of speech that indicate that your administration will actively protect rights to free speech and academic freedom.  In these remarks, taken from your September 24, 2004, convocation address, you stated,
[There are] two values central to our academic purpose: our commitment to freedom of expression and our obligation to foster here a true inclusive community…. [The] corollary of freedom of speech is the freedom to criticize that which is said. And sometimes this freedom to disagree becomes an obligation…. Academic communities at their best are places that challenge more than they reinforce.
While these remarks were not enough to change Dartmouth’s rating (as we explained in our February 28, 2005, letter), the remarks take on added significance in the wake of the additional developments described below.
Second, FIRE has observed that your letter of May 10, 2001, apparently has been removed from Dartmouth’s website.  Formerly available at president010510.html, a link to that address now turns up a message stating that “This Page Has Moved.”  While the page states that “no content was deleted,” a search of Dartmouth’s website no longer turns up any results for the May 10, 2001, letter.
Finally, on April 18, 2005, Robert Donin, General Counsel for the college, wrote a guest column for The Dartmouth in which he stated:
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has cited comments in community letters written by President Wright and Dean Larimore shortly after the Zeta Psi decision as the basis for FIRE’s contention that Dartmouth has a “speech code.” Those two letters do express the writers’ personal convictions about racist, sexist and homophobic behavior and the effect of such behavior on the College community.
Removed from the context of the Zeta Psi case, these comments might imply a broader regulation of expression. But the letters were prompted by, and addressed to, the specific case at hand. (Both letters were commenting on the decision already reached by Dean Martin Redman concerning Zeta Psi, rather than setting forth policies that led to that decision.) The assertion that the letters constituted official “policies” subjecting students to penalties for discriminatory or unpopular speech per se is incorrect.
Taken together, these three developments indicate that neither your May 10, 2001, letter nor Dean Larimore’s May 11, 2001, letter represent binding statements of college policy, and they cannot be relied upon to support any student or faculty complaints based on the content or viewpoint of controversial speech.  FIRE respectfully requests that you confirm this understanding and that you confirm that Dartmouth’s excellent statement of Freedom of Expression and Dissent (contained on page 9 of the Student Handbook) is the college’s definitive declaration of student rights to free speech.
Contrary to recent statements from your administration, FIRE is not an “interest group.”  As you can see from our Board of Directors and Board of Advisors (and as you know from personal experience and interaction), FIRE is a nonpartisan organization made up of civil liberties leaders from across the political spectrum.  Our only “interests” are free speech, religious liberty, due process, freedom of conscience, and legal equality on campus.  FIRE is committed to accurately evaluating a college’s free speech policies, and it is eager to clear up any confusion regarding the relationship between the May 10 and May 11, 2001, letters and Dartmouth’s statement of Freedom of Expression and Dissent.
Thank you for taking the time to address the concerns raised by this letter, and we look forward to your response.
David French
cc: T. J. Rodgers
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Schools: Dartmouth College